Posted on April 9, 2010
George F. Will
The 29 people killed last week in the West Virginia coal-mine explosion will soon be as forgotten by the nation as are the 362 miners who were killed in a 1907 explosion in that state, the worst mining disaster in American history. The costs of producing the coal that generates approximately half of America's electricity also include the hundreds of other miners who have suffered violent death in that dangerous profession, not to mention those who have suffered debilitating illnesses and premature death from ailments acquired toiling underground.
Which makes particularly pertinent the fact that the number of Americans killed by accidents in 55 years of generating electricity by nuclear power is: 0. That is the same number of Navy submariners and surface sailors injured during six decades of living in very close proximity to reactors.
Today, 20 percent of America's electricity, and 69 percent of its carbon-free generation of electricity, is from nuclear plants. But it has been 30 years since America began construction on a new nuclear reactor.
France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power; China is starting construction of a new reactor every three months. Meanwhile, America, which pioneered nuclear power, is squandering money on wind power, which provides 1.3 percent of the nation's electricity: it is slurping up $30 billion of tax breaks and other subsidies amounting to $18.82 per megawatt-hour, 25 times as much per megawatt-hour as the combined subsidies for all other forms of electricity production.
Wind power involves gargantuan "energy sprawl." To produce 20 percent of America's power by wind, which the Obama administration dreamily proposes, would require 186,000 tall turbines—40 stories tall, their flashing lights can be seen for 20 miles—covering an area the size of West Virginia. The amount of electricity that would be produced by wind turbines extending the entire 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail can be produced by four reactors occupying four square miles of land. And birds beware: the American Bird Conservancy estimates that the existing 25,000 turbines kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds a year. Imagine the toll that 186,000 turbines would take.
Solar power? It produces less than a tenth of a percent of our electricity. And panels and mirrors mean more sprawl. Biomass? It is not so green when you factor in trucks to haul the stuff to the plants that burn it. Meanwhile, demand for electricity soars. Five percent of America's electricity powers gadgets no one had 30 years ago—computers.
America's nuclear industry was a casualty of the 1979 meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania, which was and is referred to as a "catastrophe" even though there were no measurable health effects. Chernobyl was a disaster because Russians built the reactor in a way no one builds today—without a containment vessel.
Since the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Alexander's state has played a special role in U.S. energy policy. The last commercial reactor opened in America is Watts Bar, Unit 1 in Tennessee. And, in a sense, all uses of nuclear power began in that state.
In September 1942, the federal government purchased 59,000 acres of wilderness in eastern Tennessee and built an instant city—streets, housing, schools, shops, and the world's most sophisticated scientific facilities. This was—is—Oak Ridge. Just 34 months later, a blinding flash illuminating the New Mexico desert announced the dawn of the atomic age. That is what Americans can do when motivated.
Today, a mini–Manhattan Project could find ways to recycle used nuclear fuel in a way that reduces its mass 97 percent and radioactive lifetime 98 percent. Today, Alexander says, 10 percent of America's lightbulbs are lit with electricity generated by nuclear material recycled from old Soviet weapons stocks. This is, as Alexander says, "one of the greatest swords-into-plowshares efforts in world history, although few people seem to know about it." It is a travesty that the nation that first harnessed nuclear energy has neglected it so long because of fads about supposed "green energy" and superstitions about nuclear power's dangers.